Time and Temperature Control: Keeping Food Safe with the FDA Model Food Code

When it comes to food safety, time and temperature control is one of the most crucial aspects to consider. The FDA Model Food Code has specific guidelines that help food establishments manage these factors to prevent foodborne illnesses. In this article, we’ll explore what the Food Code says about time and temperature control, why it’s so important, and how you can apply these principles in a real-world setting to ensure the safety of the food you serve.

Why Time and Temperature Control Matters

Bacteria and other pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses thrive in certain temperature ranges. If food is left in these danger zones for too long, it can become unsafe to eat. The FDA Model Food Code provides clear guidelines to help prevent this from happening by controlling how long food stays at specific temperatures.

The Danger Zone

The “danger zone” is the temperature range where bacteria grow most rapidly—between 41°F (5°C) and 135°F (57°C). Within this range, bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. To keep food safe, it’s essential to minimize the time it spends in this danger zone.

Key Guidelines for Time and Temperature Control

1. Cooking Temperatures

Different foods need to be cooked to different internal temperatures to ensure they are safe to eat. Here are some examples from the FDA Model Food Code:

  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck): 165°F (74°C) for at least 15 seconds.
  • Ground meats (beef, pork, lamb): 155°F (68°C) for at least 15 seconds.
  • Seafood (fish, shellfish): 145°F (63°C) for at least 15 seconds.
  • Whole cuts of meat (beef, pork, lamb): 145°F (63°C) for at least 15 seconds.

Using a food thermometer is crucial to ensure these temperatures are reached.

2. Holding Temperatures

Once food is cooked, it must be held at the correct temperature to keep it safe:

  • Hot Holding: Keep hot foods at 135°F (57°C) or above. Use equipment like steam tables, heat lamps, or slow cookers to maintain these temperatures.
  • Cold Holding: Keep cold foods at 41°F (5°C) or below. Use refrigerators, ice baths, or coolers to maintain these temperatures.

3. Cooling Foods

Cooling foods quickly and safely is just as important as cooking them. The FDA Model Food Code specifies that cooked food should be cooled from 135°F to 70°F (57°C to 21°C) within two hours, and then from 70°F to 41°F (21°C to 5°C) or lower within the next four hours. This method prevents the growth of bacteria.

Some effective cooling methods include:

  • Ice Baths: Place containers of hot food in an ice bath and stir regularly to cool them quickly.
  • Shallow Pans: Spread hot food out in shallow pans to increase the surface area and speed up cooling.
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  • Blast Chillers: Use commercial blast chillers for rapid cooling of large quantities of food.

4. Reheating Foods

When reheating previously cooked and cooled food, it must be brought back up to 165°F (74°C) within two hours to ensure any potential bacteria are destroyed. Use methods like microwaves, ovens, or stovetops to achieve this temperature quickly.

5. Thawing Foods

Proper thawing is essential to prevent the growth of bacteria. The FDA Model Food Code outlines four safe thawing methods:

  • Refrigeration: Thaw food in the refrigerator, keeping it at 41°F (5°C) or below.
  • Running Water: Thaw food under running water at a temperature of 70°F (21°C) or lower. Ensure the water is flowing constantly.
  • Microwave: Thaw food in the microwave if it will be cooked immediately after thawing.
  • Cooking: Thaw food as part of the cooking process, such as cooking frozen vegetables directly without thawing.

Real-World Applications

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s see how these guidelines apply in everyday food operations through some real-world examples.

Example 1: A Fast-Paced Restaurant

In a busy restaurant, managing time and temperature control can be challenging, especially during peak hours. Here’s how they do it:

  • Cooking: Chefs use food thermometers to check the internal temperatures of meat and seafood to ensure they reach the required temperatures.
  • Holding: Hot dishes are kept in steam tables, while salads and cold appetizers are stored in refrigerated units.
  • Cooling: Leftover soups and sauces are divided into shallow pans and placed in ice baths to cool quickly.
  • Reheating: Pre-cooked items like soups and casseroles are reheated on the stovetop to 165°F (74°C) before serving.

Example 2: A Family-Run Deli

A family-run deli focuses on proper holding and reheating practices to keep their homemade dishes safe:

  • Hot Holding: Freshly made hot sandwiches are kept in a warming drawer at 135°F (57°C) or above until they are served.
  • Cold Holding: Prepared salads and cold cuts are kept in refrigerated display cases at 41°F (5°C) or below.
  • Reheating: Leftover roast beef is sliced and reheated to 165°F (74°C) before being served in sandwiches.

Example 3: A Catering Company

A catering company handles large quantities of food and must adhere to strict time and temperature controls to ensure safety:

  • Cooking: Large batches of food are cooked to the proper temperatures using commercial-grade equipment.
  • Holding: Hot foods are transported in insulated carriers that maintain temperatures above 135°F (57°C). Cold foods are kept in refrigerated trucks.
  • Cooling: Foods are cooled rapidly using blast chillers before being stored in refrigerators.
  • Reheating: At events, foods are reheated on-site to 165°F (74°C) using portable ovens and stoves.

Tips for Effective Time and Temperature Control

Here are some practical tips to help you maintain proper time and temperature control in your food establishment:

  1. Use Food Thermometers: Always use calibrated food thermometers to check the internal temperatures of food.
  2. Monitor and Record Temperatures: Keep a log of temperatures for cooking, holding, cooling, and reheating to ensure compliance with safety guidelines.
  3. Train Your Staff: Make sure all employees understand the importance of time and temperature control and know how to use thermometers and other equipment properly.
  4. Regular Equipment Maintenance: Ensure that all refrigeration and heating equipment is in good working order and regularly maintained.
  5. Plan Ahead: Prepare cooling plans for large batches of food and ensure you have enough space and equipment to cool them safely.

Building a Culture of Food Safety

Creating a culture of food safety means making it a priority at every level of your establishment. Here’s how to build and maintain this culture:

  1. Lead by Example: Management should model proper time and temperature control practices and emphasize their importance.
  2. Encourage Accountability: Make food safety everyone’s responsibility. Encourage staff to speak up if they see something that doesn’t meet safety standards.
  3. Continuous Improvement: Regularly review and update your time and temperature control practices. Stay informed about new guidelines and technologies that can help improve food safety.


Time and temperature control is a fundamental aspect of food safety. By following the guidelines outlined in the FDA Model Food Code, food establishments can significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Whether it’s cooking, holding, cooling, or reheating food, maintaining the correct temperatures and minimizing the time food spends in the danger zone is crucial.
Remember, food safety is a team effort. By educating your staff, using the right equipment, and staying vigilant, you can ensure that the food you serve is safe and delicious. So, keep those thermometers handy and make time and temperature control a top priority in your kitchen!

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